Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is confident tiredness will not be an issue for his side when they face France in the World Cup final despite once again coming through extra time to beat England on Wednesday.
Croatia came from behind to win 2-1 in the semi-final clash in Moscow, with Mario Mandzukic claiming the winner in the 109th minute after Ivan Perisic had earlier cancelled out Kieran Trippier’s free-kick opener.
Dalic’s side were clearly exhausted, but they managed to fight on to the end of two hours of gripping football to take the country of just over four million people into the final for the first time.
However, the biggest concern looking ahead to Sunday’s game is bound to be fatigue, with Croatia having also required extra time and penalties to come through ties against Denmark and hosts Russia in the past two weeks.
France will have had 24 hours longer to prepare for the game after edging out Belgium 1-0 in 90 minutes in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.
“This is fantastic. Two players played with half a leg, but it didn’t show. In extra-time nobody wanted to be substituted. This shows character and is what makes me proud. Nobody gave up,” said Dalic, whose team have played the equivalent of one match more than the French.
“We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it. Going to extra-time might be a problem along with the fact France have had an extra day to recover but there will be no excuses,” he added.
“We have to play as if this were the first game in this tournament.”
No team has ever made it to the World Cup final after going to extra-time in all three prior knockout rounds — England twice won in extra-time in 1990 before losing on penalties to West Germany in the semi-finals.
Dalic was only appointed as Croatia coach towards the end of their qualifying campaign, leading them to Russia via a play-off win against Greece.
– ‘Better in all aspects’ –
He described France as a “top-drawer team with fantastic players”, but his own side have earned their place in the final, their victory over England coming after they earlier destroyed Lionel Messi and Argentina with a 3-0 win in the group stage.
Luka Modric has been inspirational throughout their run, yet there were numerous outstanding performances at the Luzhniki Stadium as Croatia recovered from a shaky opening half hour.
Among the best was Marcelo Brozovic, the Inter Milan midfielder brought into the line-up to provide extra steel in front of the defence.
“We were the better team in all aspects of the game,” said Dalic.
“We played better than we did against Argentina. I told the players before the game there was no pressure — we have reached the semi-finals, enjoy your football and this was exactly what we did.”
Croatia now have the chance to take revenge on France after losing 2-1 in Paris when the sides met in the semi-finals back in 1998 — Dalic travelled to that World Cup as a fan.
With such a modest population, they are the smallest country to get to a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950, and in the modern game it is a staggering achievement.
“For Croatian football and Croatia as a country this is history being written,” said the 51-year-old Dalic.
“We are going to play England in the League of Nations (in October) and we don’t have a proper stadium to play that game. But we have our hearts, our pride and our players and that is what is really important to us.”
He will just be hoping that all of them are fit enough for one last effort against a fearsome French side.